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What lies behind the current turmoil within COSATU? – Jeremy Cronin

Jeremy Cronin

Last Friday cde Zwelinzima Vavi was invited as the key-note speaker to the South African Labour Bulletin’s 40th anniversary event. “Is labour at a turning point?” was the question he was asked to address. Focusing on the divisions within COSATU, cde Vavi answered in the affirmative.

There is much to welcome in this very important speech by the general secretary of the largest trade union federation in Africa. Cde Vavi quite correctly dismissed the “many shallow commentators” who would have it that the root cause of current divisions in COSATU lies, for instance, “in personal differences”. Also to be welcomed is the strongly expressed support for the reclaiming of worker-democracy and work-place organisation. Likewise cde Vavi’s insistence that “We cannot have a situation where unions say one thing in the public arena, say for example on the need to tackle corruption, and then refuse to be accountable in their own unions.”

Above all, the speech is to be welcomed for its dire warning to those who imagine that casually splitting the Federation and forming another is the answer. This is how cde Vavi puts it:

“The easy option might appear to be to simply walk away from it all by announcing a split and the formation of a new Federation, forged around a more radical economic agenda combined with a determination to start afresh to entrench accountability and workers’ control. I know [that] to many of you in this room [he is addressing an SALB audience remember] this sounds like a good option. But this is not as easy or desirable as it might sound. In a context in which temperatures are running high, and fierce loyalties are felt in one direction or another, any split will produce multiple conflicts at every level.”

Cde Vavi goes on to warn that a split will inevitably spill over into factionalising of some 230 shop stewards councils countrywide, the factionalising of 18 affiliates, a civil war of purging and counter-purging, and even the real danger of violent confrontations (which have already happened, by the way).

In all of this cde Vavi is absolutely correct. He is to be commended for stepping up to the plate and warning all those, and we trust he means ALL those, from whatever direction, who are reckless about safe-guarding COSATU unity. He is also correct to say that “unity at any price”, a mechanical unity of the kind that arguably emerged from the last COSATU national congress, is not a lasting solution either. It must be a principled unity based on an active programme of action.

But to achieve a principled unity, based on working class solidarity and the re-building of a powerful trade union movement, we need to diagnose the problems within the trade union movement, and within the wider working class, accurately. It is here that cde Vavi’s speech falters.

What follows is not a sectarian taking of sides, but an attempt to contribute to the discussion that cde Vavi has initiated. As the SACP we are not under the illusion that COSATU is divided into two neat camps – the one good and the other bad. Indeed, apart from the unending capitalist offensive against COSATU and unions in general, resulting in a dramatic drop in the percentage of private sector workers who are unionised, many of the core internal challenges facing unions – like growing leadership distance from the work-place, bureaucratism, the sins of incumbency, and business unionism – are to be found in all affiliates, no doubt in different forms and in differing degrees.

“Two distinct views”

Having dismissed “shallow commentators” who explain COSATU’s current divisions simply in terms of personal differences among the leadership, cde Vavi characterises the core issue at stake in COSATU’s divisions in the following terms:

“The underlying differences within the Federation revolve primarily around two distinct views on the ANC’s economic agenda and what this has meant to workers’ demands enshrined in the Freedom Charter. The first view, as expressed through adopted resolutions in every National Congress and Central Committee since 1997, is that our government has pursued a neo-liberal economic agenda at the expense of the working class, and that this should continue to be vigorously challenged by COSATU. The opposing view is that this criticism is too harsh and the Federation should take a ‘nuanced’ view. In the past two and a half years the latter view has found expression in the public arena.”

This statement lies at the very heart of cde Vavi’s analysis of the underlying cause of the divisions within COSATU. Unfortunately this analysis is problematic in many respects. Let us unpack some of the problems systematically:

First let’s note that this characterisation of “the root cause” of the divisions within COSATU is itself a NUANCED version of NUMSA’s Special NEC version of the root cause:

“We have boldly maintained that at the heart of the crisis in COSATU are two opposing forces: the forces of capitalism and the forces socialism. The capitalist forces within the Federation seek to make workers to understand and tolerate the continuation of white monopoly capitalist domination, by accepting elements of the neoliberal NDP. The socialist forces seek to mobilise the working class to break the power of white monopoly capitalism through the implementation of the Freedom Charter as historically understood by the working class.” (“Ideological Reflections and Responses to some recent attacks”, NUMSA Special NEC, 15 September 2013)

Of course, it is somewhat helpful that cde Vavi has at least NUANCED this NUMSA declaration of civil war within the Federation. But cde Vavi’s nuancing is still basically a milder version of the same perspective. It doesn’t serve, therefore, as we will show, as the basis for providing a principled and unifying way forward. This brings us to the second related problem in cde Vavi’s characterisation of the root cause of divisions within COSATU.

Second, note how his characterisation of the “root cause” of the divisions is not a balanced attempt to at least understand the opposing perspectives and begin to provide unifying leadership on a way out of the dire cul-de-sac into which, on cde Vavi’s own admission, the Federation might be heading. The “first view” is presented as being in line with all resolutions of the Federation, going back to 1997. “The second view” is presented as a Johnny-come-lately deviation that has suddenly popped up publicly in the past two-and-a-half years – i.e. exactly when the current turmoil set in; i.e. implicitly, if not explicitly, it is this “second view” that cde Vavi is blaming for being at the heart of the divisions. I don’t think that is a useful approach to addressing unity in the federation.

Third, but what exactly is the “first view”? This is how cde Vavi puts it: “since 1997… our government has pursued a neo-liberal economic agenda at the expense of the working class…”  But can government’s “economic agenda” (to use cde Vavi’s term provisionally) over the past 17 years be simplistically reduced to neo-liberalism, finish-and-klaar, without any nuance?

Incontestably, there have been powerful neo-liberal (and other narrow capitalist) ideological influences at work from within and without the state and ANC. It would be strange if that were not the case, given the global context of our democratic breakthrough in 1994, given the power of incumbent monopoly capital within our country, and given the emergent capitalist class formation underway within the ANC (and within COSATU itself, particularly via union investment arms). Over the past 6 years the dominance of a neo-liberal perspective within government has declined somewhat, but powerful neo-liberal tendencies have certainly not disappeared. For instance, a current move from factions within the state bureaucracy (rejected, at least formally, by the ANC and government) is to privatise electricity transmission.

The struggle, as cde Vavi says in concluding his speech, certainly continues. But who wages the struggle? Is it the trade union movement alone? We will return to this last question in a moment.

Fourth, precisely because government (or ANC) economic policy cannot be reduced simplistically to “neo-liberalism” finish-and-klaar, when he briefly traces the history of COSATU’s resistance to neo-liberalism in government over the past 17 years, cde Vavi, in effect, NUANCES “view one” (i.e. he unintentionally falls into a version of “view two”!). For instance, he tells us that:

“In 1995 [actually it was 1996] the ANC government unilaterally announced GEAR. Practically, this meant the announcement of a neoliberal programme of privatisation of major state enterprises…” etc.

But in the very next paragraph he tells us that “the privatisation of most major state owned enterprises” was stopped. In other words, a key pillar of the 1996 GEAR neo-liberal policy package was not (or could not be) pursued. This is an important NUANCE. There are many more NUANCES that follow in cde Vavi’s speech. We are told that the 2010 COSATU CEC “observed that there was paralysis in government caused by policy zigzags”, and that concerns were raised that “progressive elements of the National Growth Path document were being ignored”, or that “little was being done to resource and vigorously implement the industrial policy action plan”…etc. All of these claims (however, accurate they may or may not be) amount, at the very least, to a concession that there were (and are) battles going on inside of government around policy direction. In other words, it is way too simplistic to argue that the “ANC government has pursued neo-liberal policies” finish-and-klaar. If you admit there are zig-zags, then you are nuancing the argument. Perhaps cde Vavi’s nuancing at this point is saying little more than any alternatives to neo-liberalism that might exist in government or the ANC, are simply being swept aside. But if so, even this NUANCING is done by sleight of hand, which brings us to:

Fifth, the resistance to GEAR, or to privatisation, is presented by cde Vavi as a battle waged by COSATU out on its own, flying solo. “COSATU succeeded in stopping privatisation of most major state owned enterprises”, he says. Certainly COSATU played a critical, arguably the leading role in mobilising against privatisation – but the SACP was also active together with COSATU. Many comrades in government, in the ANC NEC committees, and ANC comrades in parliament also played an active part in resisting privatisation of major state owned enterprises. This struggle continues, and the anti-privatisation forces across our movement and within government are now much stronger. But cde Vavi airbrushes this part of our recent shared history out of existence.

Cde Vavi, tells us that the neo-liberal project “was described by COSATU as the ‘1996 Class Project”’ – actually, it was the SACP that coined the term referring, precisely, to the date of the announcement of GEAR in 1996 (and not 1995). As the SACP we are not now quibbling over copyright here, but rather we are trying to underline a pattern in cde Vavi’s argument. COSATU, we are told, was labelled by some ANC leaders as “populist, economistic, ultra-left”. That’s true. But then so were many of us in the SACP.

The picture portrayed in cde Vavi’s argument in summarising the past 15 years or so is a picture of THEM vs. COSATU alone, of the NEO-LIBERALS vs. the FEDERATION…and now, by implication, some of “us” (view two, the COSATU NUANCERS) have gone over to the other side. The drift of cde Vavi’s argument here runs the danger of becoming syndicalist (in the strict meaning of that term) – i.e. the only authentic opposition to capitalism is in an ideologically pure trade union movement.

Rebuilding the unity of COSATU on a principled programme of action is the key priority

Cde Vavi is absolutely right – the re-building of a united COSATU on the bed-rock of worker-democracy and a progressive programme of action is the critical priority. In advancing this strategic task, debates about whether to remain within the Tripartite Alliance, of whether to support the ANC in elections, of whether government has sold-out and (if it has) to what degree – are all important but SECONDARY matters. There are, and have always been, contending views on these matters within COSATU and its affiliates.

If, hypothetically, a united COSATU decides not to support the ANC in elections, hundreds of thousands of COSATU members will still be members of and vote for the ANC. If, hypothetically, a united COSATU decides not to remain in the Alliance, auto-workers will still continue to benefit from the billions of rands the ANC-led government has leveraged in order to ensure the survival and development of our auto sector (as opposed to Australia where a genuinely neo-liberal administration has presided over the complete loss of the entire auto sector). Workers in a united COSATU, hypothetically outside of the Alliance, will still, surely, support and seek to advance the ANC government’s industrial action plan, or the massive extension of one of the world’s largest per capita social redistributive programmes. Workers belonging to a united COSATU that hypothetically is no longer within the Alliance will still surely join SACP campaigns in large numbers on the ground, along with tens of thousands of the non-unionised, the casualised and the unwaged proletariat, to campaign against the predation of mashonisas, the credit bureaux and corrupt politicians and tenderpreneurs.

However, a divided COSATU in which (as cde Vavi has so vividly portrayed) shop-steward councils and affiliate structures are consumed in a worker-on-worker civil war will not be able to lend the full weight of the Federation to support the industrial policy action plans. An internecine union struggle, in which rival factions and rival unions seek to outflank each other with populist rhetoric and narrow short-term and entirely economistic gains for their immediate (or targeted) members will de-focus the union movement from the imperative of building solidarity with the non-unionised and with working class communities.

These are not thumb-suck predictions, already with COSATU consumed by its internal turmoil, the impact of the Federation on strengthening progressive policies and programmes, or on engaging in parliamentary processes has noticeably diminished. Already, there has been intra-COSATU worker-on-worker violence. This is why we insist – rebuilding worker solidarity and the unity of COSATU is the principle challenge, all other matters might be important, but they are secondary. So how do we take forward the re-building of COSATU unity?

The current turmoil within COSATU needs to be firmly located: first within a series of objective factors, most notably monopoly capital’s relentless offensive against the working class; and secondly, in a range of subjective responses from within and beyond COSATU ranks.

Objective factors impacting on the organised working class

In any analysis of the current turmoil within COSATU it is absolutely critical to ground it in the very first place in an understanding of monopoly capital’s relentless offensive against the working class. This has seen the rolling back and hollowing out of many important formal and institutional trade union gains after 1994. Extensive labour brokering, casualisation, mass retrenchments in a context of persisting crisis levels of unemployment – all have weakened the power of unionised workers in the class balance of forces.

Massive capital flight out of our country, some of it illegal, some of it through dual listings, mergers and acquisitions, transfer pricing, and tax avoidance, coupled with a persisting private sector investment strike, have led to significant de-industrialisation. Weaknesses in government policy and programmes, or the failure to vigorously implement or sufficiently fund aggressive counter-measures have certainly contributed to these problems – but that is different from making government centrally to blame, or from simply declaring the ANC-led government “neo-liberal”.

Among the consequences of this capitalist-driven, anti-working class offensive has been the dramatic decline in the percentage of unionised workers in the private sector. Between 1997 and 2013, while the number of unionised private sector workers remained static (at just over 1.8m), the percentage of workers in the private sector who were unionised dropped dramatically from 35.6% to 24.4%. By contrast, in the same period, public sector unionised workers grew both in absolute numbers (from 835,795 to 1,393,189) and in percentage terms (from 55.2% to nearly 70%). (I note in passing that if the ANC-led government’s economic-agenda was half as neo-liberal as alleged by some, then we wouldn’t be seeing such a high and increasing level of public sector unionisation.)

Subjective responses from within the union movement to this capitalist offensive

There isn’t the space here to unpack the diversity of ideological tendencies and responses to the pain being inflicted upon the trade union movement and upon the working class in general -including a variety of syndicalist, vanguardist, personality cults, and other tendencies.

Many of these competing tendencies are further catalysed by different objective realities related to the stratification and segmentation of the working class. Cde Vavi is right to say, for instance, that while “life has not been cushy for public sector workers”, their different objective reality is likely to lead to a “slightly different perspective on the world of work”. This is surely correct, as is the point cde Vavi goes on to make that where such differences emerge out of different objective realities, the role of a progressive Federation is to build worker unity and solidarity. (It’s unfortunate therefore that the general secretary of COSATU takes an unwarranted swipe at public sector unions, suggesting with great hyperbole that their different work-place reality “has made it not difficult for some of their leadership to be persuaded that the state is an eternal ally, and that any class based opposition to the state neoliberal policies is counter-revolutionary.” But let’s pass over this.)

With massive pressure on unionisation in the private sector, and particularly on the manufacturing sector it would not be surprising if the danger were to arise of intra-COSATU competition to recruit and even poach members from allied affiliates. We are told that this has always been happening – and FAWU leadership has even admitted doing this. However, the new phenomenon that has arisen in the recent past within COSATU is an ideological attempt to justify the extension of scope that offends the core, founding principle of COSATU, “one industry, one union”.

NUMSA has, of course, led this ideological attempt, and it consists in two steps. The first is to argue that the “one industry, one union” principle is ineffective, and that NUMSA should organise across sectors along “value chains”. There may be substance in this proposition, an idea which the NUMSA leadership has borrowed from the Canadian Auto Workers union1, operating, of course, in a very different reality. Certainly in the South African case in particular we would have to ask strategic and tactical questions about the nature of value chains – these are increasingly dominated upstream and downstream by monopoly capital, and they are increasingly transnationalised. Would organising along these lines by NUMSA, for instance, not run the danger of undermining sectoral unions and particularly their workers in smaller industries that are marginalised within monopoly controlled value chains? Sectoral unions would be deprived of the leverage of better skilled and more permanent workers in the monopoly dominated parts of their particular sector. This in turn could result not just in intra-COSATU affiliate divisions, but the further segmentation of the working class.

None of this might be correct, and there are, no doubt, also persuasive arguments for organising across value chains with a single or several general unions. But this is not the central point. The key issue is that NUMSA has only brought this discussion into the Federation AFTER THE FACT. It has simply steamed ahead.

But the second step that NUMSA has taken in this regard has been an attempt to give “political cover” to this poaching agenda – namely to present its agenda as a class war inside of COSATU itself. And this is the real threat to COSATU unity. It comes from those quarters that elevate important but, from a union point of view, secondary matters (like should the Federation remain within the Alliance) in order to provide ideological cover to justify the hostile poaching, the cannibalising of members of fellow affiliates. That is where the critical challenge to safe-guarding the unity (whatever the political diversity) of a militant and independent COSATU lies.

I have absolutely no doubt that cde Vavi desperately and correctly wants to preserve the unity and integrity of COSATU. We should all support him in this endeavour. He undoubtedly has a key role in this respect. But the manner in which he has attempted to diagnose the root of the problems in COSATU in his SA Labour Bulletin anniversary speech is not helpful.

Cde Jeremy Cronin is SACP First Deputy General Secretary

The Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW), full name the National Automobile, Aerospace, Transportation and General Workers Union of Canada by the way has since further transformed along the general union and merged last year with the CEP (Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada) to form “Unifor” (Union for Canada) in a historical and contemporary context which is completely different to South Africa, COSATU and its affiliates in particular the principle of ‘One industry, One union’.

Issued by Jeremy Cronin

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